Paper-based games have long been a classroom staple, but many teachers have shifted to high-tech gaming. Advocates say the interactive nature of gaming has benefits in K-12 education. However, as momentum has grown for gaming in the classroom, critics have suggested that gaming is a waste of time for students and some school districts continue to use firewalls to block gaming-based websites. 

There’s a huge difference between playing a video game and watching someone else play a video game. That disconnect is thwarting the advancement of digital gaming in the K-12 classroom, according to FETC keynote speaker Katie Salen. “It’s hard for educators or parents–who are usually standing over the student’s shoulder–to see the learning involved with gaming,” Salen says. “Because games are interactive, the learning only comes to the individual who is playing the game.”

Salen, the executive director of the Institute of Play, a nonprofit focused on game-based learning, says that gaming continues to make inroads in the K-12 environment despite the obstacles the movement is facing. “We’ve seen quite a change in the last couple of years in terms of the variety of ways that people are using games and the principles of gaming in the classroom,” Salen says.

Five years ago, for example, the theory in educational circles was that gaming would take the place of a full curriculum and/or textbook. That thinking has advanced to now include discussions about how to integrate games into the classroom without replacing existing books and curriculums. In some instances, students are relating information learned in direct lectures to gaming experiences. In others, teachers are designing custom games to use in their classrooms.

These approaches are not new, Salen explains, pointing out that there is a long history of teachers using paper-based games in the classroom. “We’re just taking the concept a step further and saying that it’s not about the artifact of the game,” she says. “It’s about the entire set of principles that underlie the way games work, and that can impact the way curriculums are designed.”

A Passion for Play

Salen’s passion for digital gaming dates back more than a decade. After earning fine arts degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and the Rhode Island School of Design, she worked as a game designer for 12 years. In addition to serving as executive director of the Institute of Play, she’s also professor of games and digital media at DePaul University and learning director of GlassLab, a lab that develops game-based assessments created via a partnership between Electronic Arts, the Electronic Software Association, and Institute of Play.


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